Jesus and the Human Journey

By Bill Moore

Posted: 03 Apr 2010

This is just my personal view, mind you, but I think we've got Jesus all wrong. I don't think he was who we think he is. And I am not alone. The question of Jesus humanity and mission has vexed theologians and Biblical scholars in the generations since his crucifixion. Countless volumes have been written about this issue and debates waged without a clear consensus.

Admittedly, this seems to be pretty far off topic for a publication about electric cars, but it isn't really, not as I see it. Technology is important. How we use it or don't use it, is even more important; and that is a matter of the heart.

Now before you click the back button on your browser because Old Bill has finally gone bonkers, please bear in mind that my aging undergraduate degree was in theology and for a decade I was a church pastor caring for congregations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Illinois. When people ask me what I've done in my life, I like to reply that I've married people, buried people and lost their luggage. While I am no longer actively involved in Christian ministry, I am still interested in theological questions in general and specifically the history of the founding of the early church. Among my shelves of books about renewable energy and electric vehicles are books by Bart Ehrman, a renown Biblical scholar on first century Christianity, along with the Bible I used in my own sabbath day sermons.

I owe the origins of this off-topic digression to a caller into the Thomm Hartman radio talk show that I listen to occasionally. This particular caller, a woman, asked Thomm about a comment he'd made during a earlier broadcast. At that time, he'd posed an alternative explanation for Jesus' comments during the "sermon on the mount." According to Matthew's account (5:39-41), likely compiled in the latter half of the first century before the first Jewish rebellion in A.D. 66., Jesus exhorts his disciples:

If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well.

If any one forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

Now, I grew up believing that what Jesus was advocating was a form of pius pacifism; a humble acceptance of abuse and injustice. Hartman dug deep into his vast storehouse of historical knowledge and explained to the caller that what Jesus was, in fact, advocating was a form of creative non-violent political activism, and not passive acquiescence.

Now despite my humble Bachelor of Arts degree in theology and a reasonably intimate acquaintance with a fair share of the Old and New Testaments, this was the first time I'd heard this explanation offered.

Hartman, who apologized for not being completely familiar with the historical underpinnings of the story, explained that there were formal legal and/or theological regulations at that time in Judea governing each of these actions: turning the cheek, handing over the cloak and walking the extra mile, or literally 1000 paces in Latin. Jesus, argued Hartman, wasn't advocating helpless compliance, but bold challenges to the system.

It was Pope Benedict XVI's holy week homily in which he cites the sermon on the mount that reminded me of Hartman's comments and sent me searching the Internet to find the source. It turns out that the scholar to whom he was referring is Walter Wink, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminar in New York. According to Dr. Wink, each of the actions Jesus mentions were, in fact, challenges to the political and legal hierarchy of his day. I won't go into the specific details of Wink's argument, but it certainly struck a responsive chord with me.

Having been to Galilee, the setting for the sermon on the mount, as a newly-minted college graduate on a 10-day Holy Land tour, it's easy for me to envision the geographical context in which Jesus spoke. I understood less the political and economic circumstances of that time and place.

Assuming he was on the western side of the Sea of Galilee, somewhere above the Hellenistic town of Tiberias, perhaps near the present day location of the Church of the Beatitudes, Jesus would have been in the center of an enclave of vast, wealthy estates, owned by a small but powerful political, economic, military and religious elite of his day. Scholars have identified numerous medium and large-sized land holdings around Hellenistic Galilee. As in many autocratic countries, most of the land -- and wealth -- is owned by a minority of the population. In his time, the rest of the population in the region consisted of small land-holding farmers or tenants, "sailors" (fisherman?) and landless day labors, including artisans and carpenters, as well as slaves. In such a socio-economic milieu with its vast economic disparity and military occupation, injustice and abuse were not just feasible, but likely every day facts of life for the majority of the population.

If you accept Wink's arguments, it would appear that the Jesus of the Gospels was as much concerned about the here and now as the hereafter; and it got him killed. It wasn't his message of love and tolerance that the Romans and Sanhedrin feared; after all, the Romans accepted many religions and the Jews tolerated their share of splinter sects. It was Jesus' perceived political activism that started with the sermon on the mount and ended with his overthrowing the money changer tables in the Temple, that got him convicted of sedition, not heresy.

Dr. Wink's analysis of Jesus mission of hope and change are summarized in what he calls "The Third Way."

To those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe before their masters, Jesus offers a way to liberate themselves from servile actions and a servile mentality. And he asserts that they can do this before there is a revolution.  There is no need to wait until Rome has been defeated, or peasants are landed and slaves freed.  They can  begin to behave with dignity and recovered humanity now, even under the unchanged conditions of the old order. 

In the conditions of first-century Palestine, a political revolution against the Romans could only be catastrophic, as the events of 66-73 C.E. would prove. Jesus does not propose armed revolution.  But he does lay the foundations for a social revolution.

While I am sure there will be those who find this perspective of the founder of Christianity disconcerting, I find it both reassuring and invigorating. In my mind, Jesus message was never about the worship of his personage. It was and is about the transformation of mankind; our liberation from those forces that enslave us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For me, this is what his life was and is all about. It isn't about worship, but emulation. It's about getting our priorities straight, not our checkbooks. It's caring about each other and this fragile, lonely little planet we inhabit in a stellar system flung along the edge a dust cloud orbiting an obscure galaxy, one of countless billions. It's about appreciating how precious life and consciousness is in a universe we can only just comprehend. It's the realization that we too can be 'children of God' (Matthew 5:9). We just have to do it, each of us in our time. It's not about biological evolution, but spiritual revolution; a self-directed journey towards perfection... like our technology.

Thus ends this sermon. Have a nice day!

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